Honey Creek Loop (Big South Fork NRA), TN (8-5-17)
The Honey Creek Loop Trail is a footpath which ought to be much more wildly popular but I, personally, am immensely grateful that it isn't. Tucked away in the Tennessee portion of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, the Honey Creek Loop traverses some of the most ruggedly beautiful terrain in the entire Cumberland Plateau. Along its 5.7-mile length you'll discover massive cliffs, overhanging caverns known locally as 'rockhouses', numerous waterfalls, long distance vistas, and wild rushing rivers. It's not a journey for the average hiker either. This is a challenging footpath to be sure. Along the way are numerous rocky river crossings which can be treacherous at high water, huge boulders and ledges to climb up, over, and under, and steep rooty sections where sure-footedness is a necessity. Overall it's a wonderfully wild and enjoyable adventure of a hike if you have the energy and experience to tackle it.
As you can imagine, given the description above, I've been eyeing the Honey Creek Loop Trail as a hiking destination for quite some time. Being a 4+ hour drive from my home it would be quite a journey to get there and so I had been waiting for just the right day for a visit. This was finally my chance. The trailhead is located off Honey Creek Road to the east of the small Tennessee town of Huntsville. If you'd like more info on the loop or the Big South Fork NRA in general I'd highly recommend stopping at the small visitor center located there to get you started. The loop begins and ends at a small parking area about a mile before the roads ends at the Honey Creek Overlook. It had been recommended to me that I hike the loop in a counter-clockwise direction. I therefore walked north from the parking area a short distance and picked up the trail as it enters the woods via a small bluff on the right. The trail starts calmly enough, first climbing gently then beginning a moderate descent into one of the many rocky drainages of the South Fork Cumberland River. About a mile in the scenery gets dramatic in quite a hurry. The trail begins to follow a series of gigantic bluffs, known for their beautiful coloring as the Painted Cliffs. This is just a taste of things to come, however. An appetizer if you will. About a mile-and-a-half in a short but steep spur trail ascends the cliffs via a series of steel ladders to the wonderful Honey Creek Overlook which commands an impressive view of the South Fork far below. Back on the main trail and beyond the overlook, however, is where things get interesting.
At the two mile mark the trail turns away from the South Fork and enters the rugged valley of Honey Creek itself. The character of the path immediately changes. The terrain becomes steep and rugged. At times the path clings to the steep sides of the valley while at other times it all but follows the stream bed of Honey Creek itself. Massive boulders litter the landscape. The trail twists and winds as it makes its way up, around, and sometimes under these rugged obstacles. Along the way you'll pass the impressive rock formations known as Indian Rockhouse and the Great Hall as well as through numerous small canyons and past tumbling cascades. Though I didn't find the trail to be as hard to follow as is sometimes stated, its still a place where you'll want to keep your bearings as wandering off-trail in this type of environment can get you in trouble in a hurry. As the footpath eventually begins to make its way into the upper reaches of Honey Creek waterfalls begin to be the main attraction. Boulderhouse Falls is tucked away beneath massive house-sized rocks, the delicate Secluded Falls is visited via a short but tangled side-path, and Honey Creek Falls with its colorful surrounding rock walls and tranquil pool all are found along the final two miles of trail. Then, like it begins, the loop concludes with a gentle climb through a pristine woodland back to the trailhead.
The Honey Creek Loop was a much hyped hike that I was worried wouldn't live up to my expectations. I'm happy to report it did...and then some. Though water levels were quite low, resulting in waterfalls which were either quite anorexic or non-existent, it was still an experience that ranks up there with the best hikes I've had in the Southeast. This is an adventure, plain and simple. Wildness, ruggedness, solitude, and beauty all converge in this corner of the Cumberland Mountains to provide an incredibly enjoyable hiking experience. It took me a long time to get to Honey Creek...hopefully it won't be quite as long before I can return! So, without further adieu I introduce to you the Honey Creek Loop Trail of the Big South Fork. Lace your boots tight for this one and as always, ENJOY!!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 36.421229, -84.651785
Route Type: Loop + spurs Difficulty: HARD
Mileage Hiked: 5.7 miles Hike Duration: 4:00
Trailhead Temp: 60'F Trail Traffic: 5-10 people
Min. Elevation: 965' Max. Elevation: 1,550'
Total Vertical Gain: 850' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 149'
Trails Used (blaze color): Honey Creek Loop (green), Honey Creek Falls Spur (unblazed), Honey Creek Overlook Spur (unblazed)